Dechen Dolkar 

The tour operators said that they should be allowed to facilitate the payment of the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) for tourists who choose to route through local tour operators.

The recommendation was submitted at the consultation between the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) and the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) yesterday.

According to draft tourism rules and regulations 2022, the Department of Immigration would collect SDF from the tourist when issuing the visa or permit.

During the consultation meeting, the ABTO members asked why Bhutanese tour operators can’t apply for a visa and facilitate payment of SDF for tourists who choose to route through tour operators.

“Accordingly, as it is practised, now SDF payments would be made directly from banks to DoI,” a tour operator said.

According to the new tourism policy, tourists have the option to visit Bhutan through packaged tour operators or by booking the tours themselves.

The tour operators said that since tour operators are not mandatory, offshore tour operators would operate the tour and such businesses would be rampant in the future.

The official from TCB said that the new tourism policy would do away with the offshore agents operating tours in Bhutan. “Before, 80 percent of tours were operated by offshore agents.”

Tour operators said that it would be difficult to eradicate offshore agents if the rules and regulations were not clear.

A TCB official also said that although the tourists are not mandatory to come through the tour operator, tourists would not be allowed on their own. “They need to be guided by the service providers.” 

The draft rules state that a tourist visiting Bhutan would have to arrange visa or permit as per the immigration laws of Bhutan.

“Option should be provided to tourists whether to visit through a tour operator or individual when they pay the visa fee and SDF,” a tour operator said.

The tour operators said that they be given an opportunity to see and experience an online portal before the tourism is open on September 23.

The draft rules state that a tourist will book and arrange the tourism service only through the online booking identified by the TCB.

The tour operators asked about the difference between SDF payment gateway with DoI and the online portal. “We want to see how an online portal functions.”

The official from TCB mentioned that tourists have the flexibility to choose the hotel and travel by any vehicle from the airport if they book the tour by themselves.

However, the tour operators asked what was the logic behind imposing a requirement of seven years old for tourist vehicles if tourists can travel by any vehicle from the airport. “The tourists may choose to travel by taxi or public bus.”

The draft rules also state that only a person between the ages of 25 and 56 years with a minimum of three years of driving experience be allowed to drive the tourist vehicle.

The tour operators said that the requirement was illogical. Even pilots in Bhutan are allowed to fly until 60 years old. They argued that any driver with a health certificate should be allowed to drive.

The tour operators also said that the business bond requirement should be applied to all the service providers not just to tour operators and hoteliers.

TCB officials said that feedback and recommendations would be tabled during the council meeting tomorrow.